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Sweatshop Workers: Jacob Riis Photo


What is interesting to you about this source?

This photo helps bring the room to life. It puts people working in the room. It helps one to imagine the overcrowding, the darkness, the noise-level. It puts faces to immigrant garment workers on the LES during the late 1800s.


What does this source tell us about the family?

This is a photo that was taken in a tenement one block from our building; a very similar setting to the Levine's factory home. This photo suggests to us that the Levine's workspace was as crowded and dark. 


Who was the intended audience/consumer of this resource?

This photo was printed in a book called "How the Other Half Lives", alongside Jacob Riis' commentary about the neighborhood. This photo was intended for the "other half"--people not living on the LES, but in middle class and wealthy neighborhoods. Jacob Riis was trying to expose the crowded, unsanitary living quarters and workspaces of tenements. Riis was trying to show the plight of the poor in an effort to change the way they live and where they work--for altruistic reasons, but also in an effort to uplift the whole city. I wonder, is this depicting one of the dirtiest, most crowded tenement homes Riis entered? It's similar to watching a documentary--it's a real tenement home, but we know there is a bias, an angle. 


How does this source fit into the larger context?

Jacob Riis was one of many reformers during the Progressive movement. His photographs were displayed as part of the Tenement House Exhibit in 1900. People with money and political sway who were not familiar with the neighborhood would have seen his photographs. His photos helped lead to change in tenement housing through the 1901 Tenement House Law.


What questions does this source raise?

Who in this photo are family members and who are employees? Do they get along? Which person is the boss? Is he a kind boss/do his employees like him? Why is there a dog in the home/factory? Have they just started their work for the day or are they many hours in? Why is the girl who is looking at the camera smiling? 


What questions would you like to ask your visitors about this document?

·         How many people do you see in this photo?

·         Which person in this photo are you most drawn to? Why?


How can this document draw out multiple perspectives or humanize the context?

·         How might these workers feel about Riis taking their photo while they're at work? Excited? Embarrassed? Indifferent?

·         On the wall, you can see the Ketubah (the Jewish marriage contract)--so the owner of the factory is married. Where is the owner's wife? Is she one of the workers in the photo? Is she working in the kitchen? Is she rocking a crying baby? Is she collecting water in the rear yard? Is she shopping from the pushcarts?

·         Why would the family have a dog in their home? 

·         What is Jacob Riis' interaction with the workers like? Is he friendly with them? Is his presence invasive? 


How does this source fit into your tour theme?

My tour/ theme is about cultural adaptation. What does an immigrant hold onto in regards to culture/language/identity? What inevitably changes? What do they sacrifice? What do they want to change? So, based on this photo, what sacrifices might the Levines (who are running a similar factory) be making in their new life in America? 


How might you activate this primary source:

Within the space? Lining up the photo with the windows in the room so that visitors get the same view. 

For Adults? What kinds of pressures can you imagine are on the Levines by having a factory in their home?

For Kids? What sounds do you imagine are taking place while this photo is being taken? Create a soundscape.

For Visitors from Faraway Lands? What can you imagine the Levines pictured America to look like/be like?

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